Swimming with dolphin doctors

Though not one to sign up for a new-age dolphin workshop or fill my house with dolphin paraphernalia, I have always felt a quiet connection with and affection for dolphins as they’ve often featured in pivotal life moments. My first childhood memory was of riding a toy dolphin. The only thing I’ve ever won was a pass to the premiere of the movie, The Big Blue, and I’ll never forget when, on the eve of my spiritual initiation, a rare pink dolphin appeared, silhouetted against the Ganges sunset.

Following persistent dolphin cues, I decided to explore greater depths of the dolphin world. Dolphin sightseeing tours in Kauai initially whet my appetite. But swimming was banned and it wasn’t enough just to feel their spray as they gracefully rode the bow of the trimarine. I wanted to immerse myself in their world, feel them glide past, look them in the eyes and get zapped by their powerful sonar. Id read how this felt like they were playing you like a musical instrument in perfect harmony as the sonic vibrations coursed through your cells.

Ironically, I found Australia was one of the best places to experience this, so heading home I waited for another opportunity to escape the concrete. It soon came in the form of the Dolphin Within Trip, the only tours where you are permitted to swim with dolphins in Port Stephens, NSW, home of hundreds of inshore bottlenose dolphins. They’re run by Olivia De Bergerac, founder of the Dolphin Society, author of The Dolphin Within, management consultant and psychotherapist.

After experiencing the therapeutic benefit of swimming with dolphins to overcome a serious motorbike accident and associated depression, Olivia dedicated her life to bringing the experience to others. Convinced that people undergo a shift in brainwaves when contacting dolphins, Olivia uses a complex electroencephalograph machine to monitor the changes in tour participants after the weekend trip. Her non-profit Dolphin Society has studied over 300 cases since 1993, which indicate the powerful transformation people undergo after a dolphin encounter. Primarily, there’s a shift from the stress-related beta brainwaves to the more meditative, intuitive alpha-theta crossover brainwaves.

Boarding the beautiful catamaran Imagine with 10 others, I could see dolphin pods cruising around the horizon. Over the weekend we saw plenty of the streamlined creatures swimming with us as we sailed along, but as soon as we stopped to join them they would carry on their merry way. So we optimistically braved the cold, choppy sea hoping they would come over out of curiosity. But I guess they had bigger fish to fry and generally ignored our white flabby advances. On one occasion a dolphin did sweep through for a second but underwater visibility was so poor I only caught a glimpse of a dolphin smile in teasing retreat.

Face to face at last

My thirst to experience the dolphin magic Id read so much about was far from quenched, so I pointed my flippers towards the dolphin haven of Bunbury, Western Australia. Here I joined marine biologists Phil Coulthard and Ashley Knight on a series of spectacular swim tours. Organised by the Dolphin Discovery Centre, these trips guarantee close contact with wild dolphins in the beautiful Koombana Bay region. It was March and a lot of maternal pods were milling about with new calves, so the group had to be particularly careful not to disturb the protective mothers with vulnerable babies.

If you’re not a keen swimmer the beauty of the Dolphin Discovery Centre setup is they also have a Dolphin Eco Cruise, Interpretative Centre and a beach interaction zone where the dolphins come right into shore. They may come in the morning or afternoon for a few minutes, a few hours, or not at all, as when dealing with nature there are no definite schedules. It’s highly advisable to contact the area you’re thinking of visiting to find out the best time of year to get optimal interaction.

As soon as a dolphin comes to the sectioned-off beach area the centres enthusiastic volunteers supervise those who want to wade in with them, ensuring the dolphins are treated sensitively. Though dolphins always seem mild and friendly they can be quite dangerous if treated inappropriately. Flippers trainer Ric OBarry recounts how when he thumped a dolphin on the back he woke up in hospital after being rendered unconscious by the annoyed animals torpedo revenge. Also, my sister has an exotic scar on her hand as a memento of the bite of an over-excited dolphin at Sea World.

The dark side to this charismatic creature is evidenced in reports of young male gangs pack-raping females, vicious juvenile brawls sometimes to the death, dolphins killing 15 porpoise babies annually in Scotland, and who could forget that horrifying footage of orcas in Patagonia grabbing seal pups from shore and playing with them in a cruel dance of death?

Dolphins may seem like they’re always smiling but that’s because they don’t have any facial muscles! As Phil and Ashley enlightened me on the Swim Tours, their body language belies their true state. Leaping ballet is not just showing off; it can indicate foreplay, slapping fish to scare them into a tighter cluster, bonding or an effort to spot distant schools of fish. Slapping the tail and opening the mouth is usually a sign of aggression, whereas submissiveness is shown by closing their jaw and turning their head sideways. When dolphins swim on the bow of a boat its not necessarily a friendly gesture more the sensual pleasure of riding the bow waves, enjoying the spa effect of the boats wake or outboard motor. And much like other animals, if they don’t want to be touched they will snap their jaw, jerk their head, toss around and move away.

After 10 minutes on the boat the swim tour tactic was to get into the water at a bashful distance from a pod and play around until their curiosity led them to cruise over to investigate. This non-intrusive method took patience and perseverance but inevitably paid off as a flotilla of fins eventually made their way over to explore the odd pod of wetsuits treading water.

We were encouraged to make underwater noises and play around to attract their interest as, according to Phil, playful dolphins hang around playful people. I also experienced their famous mimicry skills as a dolphin echoed my improvised underwater whistle. At one stage I coerced a group of 12 to hold hands in the water and make funny noises but, though it left us gurgling with watery giggles, the dolphins didn’t seem impressed, remaining at a suspicious distance.

Still, Olivia De Bergerac insists they are attracted to the sound of the didgeridoo, Sanskrit songs and her own signature whistle. Also Joan Ocean of Hawaiis dolphin tours says her rendition of You Are My Sunshine brings them close every time. Siren songs aside, there were a few commonsense guidelines to consider when entering the dolphins arena, to ensure their wellbeing and optimise the experience:

  • Take off sharp jewellery.
  • Don’t use a flashlight.
  • Avoid chemical sunscreens and perfumes.
  • Move gracefully and rhythmically.
  • Keep hands behind back rather than reach out.
  • Don’t touch them near their blowhole.
  • Don’t crowd around or swim after them as this can scare them off.
  • Don’t swim with an upper respiratory tract infection as it may be communicable.

Sometimes playful duckdives and underwater squeaks seemed to attract them, though they generally passed through us without lingering. It wasn’t until my seventh and last swim tour that perseverance paid off. Shivering in the lapping waves, I was starting to doubt the possibility of an eye-to-eye encounter. Feeling dejected, I finally gave up and floated on my back in acceptance. Just then, a flash of quicksilver slid toward the two Italian lovers frolicking nearby. It circled them three times but they were so absorbed in each other they didn’t even notice.

I felt my heart open, touched by the loving scene. Then, to my amazement, the dolphin swam directly underneath me. We floated close to each other, like two curious children suspended in that magic moment. It seemed to be saying, Stop trying. Be with me in this timeless space and everything will fall into place.

A feeling of relief and relaxation washed over me, bringing a sense of peace I can still recapture whenever I recall the incident. As with all epiphanic life moments, it was indescribable; there was a sense of connection and reassurance. Brought back from the point of despondency by the soft gaze of the dolphin, I understood Oppians belief that diviner than the dolphin is nothing yet created.


Mythical, mystical creatures

Dolphins have been held in high regard by many cultures. In recent times there have been stories of dolphins warding sharks away from endangered swimmers such as John Koorey when swimming from New Zealand’s North to South Island, bringing drowning people to the surface, assisting in childbirth, particularly in the Black Sea, and even healing people of chronic or terminal illness.

The magic mythology surrounding dolphins stretches back to ancient Greece, where killing a dolphin was punishable by death and Delphi coins were embellished with their image. There were even temples dedicated to dolphins with Apollo, the god of medicine, sometimes taking the form of Delphinius the dolphin. Many ancient philosophers wrote poetry and songs about them, including Plutarch who exalted them for being the only creature who loves man for its own sake.

In Australia there’s an Aboriginal tribe off Mornington Island called the Dolphin People who believe their holy man has chosen to reincarnate as a dolphin and sends them telepathic messages. They feel that the dolphin teaches us to experience more joy, play, love and happiness. For American Indians the dolphin totem represents the sacred breath of life and is used as a healing symbol to release emotional tension.

Modern dolphinologists and marine biologists have confirmed the somewhat mystical powers of dolphin physiology highlighting the main features that make it an extraordinary mammal:

They have big brains in proportion to their body size.
Neurobiologist Dr John Lillys discovery of dolphins large and complex cerebral neo-cortex has been linked to their exceptional ability to learn, remember, analyse, react, mimic, co-ordinate and balance as well as to their telepathic, intuitive skills. The dolphin has been shown to be able to use both sides of their brains, slow brain function at will and spend most of their time in the meditative alpha-theta crossover brainwave state.

Ability to echolocate with sonar
The dolphins developed third eye is a blob of fat called the melon, which beams out soundwaves received back into their jaw, allowing them to picture clear holographic images of objects hidden or distant. They use this ability to detect and zap buried fish as well as to navigate and communicate underwater. This skill has been enlisted by the navy to detect or recover enemy divers and mines as recently as the Iraq invasion. Dr David Cole of the Aqua Thought Foundation suggests these same ultrasounds produce cavitation, which stimulates lymphocyte t-cell production, attacking virus-infected cells. It also gives them an x-ray ability which may be why they can be more attracted to pregnant and seriously ill people. Not only can they intuitively sense the persons state but they can see physical problems. A story of a dolphin ramming into a womans side which, after immediate x-ray revealed a previously undetected cancerous tumour below the bruise, is just an example of how dolphins may pay more attention to a diseased body part.

Dolphins must breathe consciously and hence can never fall into REM sleep
This means they can switch off one side of their brain for a rest while floating just below the surface, one eye closed to get a bit of meditative shut-eye. Dolphinologists hypothesise that this gives them expanded awareness and consciousness connected to their telempathic qualities, or the ability to sense what others are feeling.


Dats incredible!

No, it’s not a typo. DAT stands for Dolphin Assisted Therapy, the new acronym for the work of dolphinologists worldwide. The first dolphin healing centre began in Kyoto, Japan, and has since spread throughout the world. Extensive research in Britain, Japan and America has suggested that interaction with dolphins can effect therapeutic benefit in the following conditions: addictions, anxiety, autism, ADD, cancer, chronic pain, depression, grief, multiple sclerosis, physical and mental handicaps and phobias. The most data recorded on this comes from Dr David Nathanson, Director of Dolphin Human Therapy in Florida, with autistic children experiencing dramatically positive results from dolphin interaction.

One mother of a Down Syndrome child in his program remarked that the dolphins unlocked a door to his mind as her child spoke for the first time during a dolphin encounter. Dr Nathanson has observed how dolphins are more receptive and gentle with special-needs children and that the child in a happy, relaxed state is more receptive and motivated to learn things.

Bunbury Dolphin Therapy is conducted by Carla Henco, who largely attributes her own daughters remarkable progress from the restrictions of cerebral palsy to interaction with dolphins. Carla became dedicated to making DAT accessible and affordable to others, as her child is living testament to its efficacy. At three years, her daughter Janina was told she would never walk or talk, but now at 18 is confidently walking and talking as well as attending TAFE and working as a volunteer in the South West Environment Centre.

Bunbury Dolphin Therapys intensive individualised four-week program run by Carla, parents and volunteers combines special education skills incorporating fine and gross motor games, art programs, rhythm and music sessions along with frequent dolphin interactions. Carla has witnessed an increase in participants self-esteem, energy, attention span, communication, trust and happiness. She cites examples of an 18-year -old autistic boy, Fabian, who at the end of the four weeks began to write letters for the first time, and six-year-old Rolande who suffered from cerebral palsy with right-sided hemiplegia. The dolphins spent more time with him, especially around his right side until his right hand opened up and he regained some movement in his right leg.

Dolphin therapy also proved to reduce pain in several people with arthritis and injury. This effect has been studied by Toney Bassett, who found that sound waves of 2000 hertz trigger pain-killing endorphin production.

Different theories abound as to why dolphins may act as healing catalysts: the balancing effect of their sonar vibration, the resonance with their alpha-theta brainwaves and even just the effect of interacting in a relaxing aquatic environment with playful creatures. The exhilaration we can feel when meeting any wild animal can release immune-boosting leukotrienes and interferon as well as pain-killing endorphins and the relaxant serotonin. New York psychiatrist Dr Levinson found that even having a pet present during sessions greatly improved patients responses.

Being in water is itself immensely therapeutic as our phylogenetic memory from the womb coupled with the weightless, natural environment creates a positive state shift. As with any complementary therapy, interaction with dolphins can be seen as a possible catalyst for positive change towards healing rather than a definite cure in itself. Carla Henco endorses the wonderful experience of dolphin play yet emphasises its not a medical treatment and dolphins do not provide medical cures or change medical diagnosis.

Healing in any circumstance is often an inexplicable blessing, beyond the realm of science. Though the exact curative process is unknown, miraculous effects of dolphins have been well documented in cases of conditions ranging from cancer to myalgic encephalitis and handicaps. After a dolphin encounter people often experience uplifted spirits and increased clarity and creativity. Some find it an incredible zen experience of total peace while others can soar in euphoria of dolphin drunkenness by laughing uncontrollably. One can imagine the positive impact this would have on chronic depression. Dr Ari Kiev, one of the worlds leading specialists on depression, attributed the effect to the domain in which people can move beyond ego and identify with a collective consciousness characterised by energy, love, compassion, awe and reverence.

Horace Dobbs, founder of the Oxford Underwater Research Group and director of International Dolphin Watch, began a project called Operation Sunflower when he saw the important role dolphins played in the relief of Bill Bowells clinical depression. He has written books documenting cases, produced Eye of the Dolphin, a movie about a man called Percy conquering depression through dolphin therapy, and distributed a recording of dolphin sounds called Dolphin Dreamtime, which is used in psychiatric wards as an audio-pill for depression, post-operative trauma and pre-examination relaxation.

Olivia De Bergerac explained that clinically depressed people have often lost their faith in human nature and that animals, particularly dolphins, beam an unconditional love that opens their heart again.

Participants on Olivias tours have noticed both subtle and dramatic changes in themselves. Ruth said: The weekend helped to lift me out of my indecision and clarify the issues that were bothering me, leading her to get a better job, end a relationship and move house. Olivia has also noticed it can help addictive behaviour as with 14-year-old Daniel, who quit smoking after his first trip.

The journey also inspired Ken Davis to compose his Dolphin Magic CD and graphic designer Steve to explore his passion for sculpture. HIV sufferer and fashion photographer Stevie Hughes said swimming with dolphins in the Caribbean helped him to accept his condition, saying, Because they love you unconditionally, its the purest experience you can have.


Free Flipper

Most people are now aware of the devastating effect drift and circular net fishing has on the dolphin population, preferring to buy dolphin-friendly tuna. At 51 Sydney beaches with shark nets, there are now sonic pingers to ward off dolphins. But humans are also threatening dolphins through thoughtless pollution of waterways and deforestation in areas such as the Amazon. Already 80 per cent of the spinner dolphin population is extinguished and the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Orinoko and Amazon dolphins are at great risk.

Captivity, as always, raises important moral and practical quandaries. Ex-Flipper trainer Ric OBarry notes, When in captivity dolphins are forced to meet so many people … like being trapped in a small room with a number of people who desperately want something from you. He is now dedicated to rehabilitating captive dolphins before setting them free. Jacques Cousteau, whose own dolphins that were confined for study purposes tried to commit suicide by hitting their heads against the pool, realised: No aquarium, no tank in a marine land can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea.

Our anthropocentric nature delights in seeing dolphins doing human tricks like waving goodbye with their tail, kissing and taking us on awkward joyrides. Dolphinariums make meeting dolphins easy and accessible for humans and the dolphins look happy enough … so what’s wrong with them? Here are some issues to consider:

  • Many dolphins die when being caught for captivity.
  • To keep them alive they are given synthetic vitamins, antibiotics, fungicides and hormones.
  • The chlorine in water can bleach their skin and sting their eyes.
  • They may be denied food when disobedient.
  • They often fall prey to stress and immune system disorders such as heart attacks, pneumonia and gastric ulcers.
  • Dolphins in captivity commonly die prematurely.
  • They are deprived of variety in their environment and activities.
  • We don’t get the maximum therapeutic benefit of swimming with them as they rarely use their sonar when it will bounce off walls and drive them mad with the stressful reverberation.

    Ric OBarry says, If we really love and respect these animals we should agree to meet them on their own terms. It may have taken extra effort but I’ll never forget the oceanic ecstasy of meeting these magnificent mammals in their natural element. To take away their freedom and familial love seems to strip away their essence, the very thing that attracts us to them in the first place. May we continue to respect and protect these wondrous creatures as they have much to teach us if were willing to dive in and listen.

    Discovery Centre tours and volunteer program contact, T: (08) 9791 3088
    Olivia De Bergeracs Dolphin Within Trip and Dolphin Society
    Bunbury Dolphin Therapy contact Carla Henco at T: (08) 9721 8890

    References available on request.

    Caroline Robertson runs an Ayurvedic clinic and courses Australia-wide. T: (02) 9904 7754,


Caroline Robertson

Caroline Robertson

Caroline Robertson is a naturopath and homoeopath with thirty years experience. For phone or skype consultations please contact

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